If you want to learn how to eat according to your natural hunger and fullness cues (which ultimately leads to reaching and maintaining your ideal healthy weight), it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with your own "Hunger Scale." In other words, becoming aware of how hungry or full you are throughout the day and eating according to this.
Unfortunately, most of the time, we eat for different reasons such as emotion, habit, boredom, or visual cue. The funny thing is, we're all born intuitive eaters. Think of your baby, toddler, or preschooler and how they eat. They eat (or indicate that they're ready to eat) when they're subtly hungry and stop when they're comfortably full. They're not afraid to leave food on their plates and they'll ask for more if they're still hungry. Somewhere along the line (around the age of 4 or 5), we lose this ability to eat ONLY according to our true hunger cues. Things like food marketing and advertising, day to day stress, the constant pressure to be thin, and severe portion distortion are all factors that contribute to eating for the wrong reasons and developing unhealthy relationships with food.
I often refer to "The Hunger Scale" during nutrition coaching sessions with my clients. I was first introduced to this simple yet fascinating concept by Dietitians and Authors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch who both created the concept of "Intuitive Eating." The hunger scale is a tool that you can use to become a more intuitive eater. I'm a bit of a hunger scale nerd (ha, can you tell?!)—I'm often thinking about and referring to what number I'm at. It's helpful for me and I hope it will be helpful for you too.
#1: Uncomfortable Hunger: This is not a good place to be. We all get here though—sometimes it just happens. This is when your stomach hurts because you're so hungry. You may be a bit shaky because your blood sugar is dropping and you may even have a headache. You're likely irritable and snappy. All you can think about is food and you're willing to eat almost anything that you can get your hands on. You cannot concentrate on anything else and you feel weak. You probably haven't eaten in hours.
#2: Subtle Hunger: This is that place that most people don't recognize as hunger. This is when you may start to think about food. Your concentration and focus may dip and you may start snacking on the crackers at your desk or in the pantry. You may pour yourself another cup of coffee. You may start to feel slight hunger pangs in your stomach (slight gurgles). This is actually when you want to start eating a balanced meal or a snack.
#3: Neutral: You are comfortable here. You are not hungry and you're not full. You are not feeling any sense of "hunger pang" and you're not really thinking about food. You also don't feel any sense of fullness. You are able to concentrate and focus.
#4: Comfortable Fullness: This is when you've had a meal or snack and you are full, but not uncomfortable. You feel the food in your stomach and it's a satisfying feeling. You are not over-full. At this point, you may be tempted to have another bite or two if you're eating something that you really like. You are hesitant because you know that there's a good chance that it will lead to discomfort. Some people don't allow themselves to get to a comfortable fullness state, because they've been taught to eat ONLY until they are comfortable or neutral.
#5: Uncomfortable Fullness: This is not a good place to be. Again, we've all been there numerous times. You SWEAR that you'll never let yourself get there again, every time. You're uncomfortable and even feel sick. You likely feel regret and guilt and wish you had stopped eating. You may feel this after a holiday dinner or a trip to a buffet.
Sometimes I ask my clients where they land on the hunger scale throughout the day. Most people are NOT shifting perfectly from a two to a four all day, although this would be ideal. Some people bounce between a two and a three, or "graze", not allowing themselves to feel comfortable fullness. They often overeat by the end of the day because of evening snacking. Other people shift between a one and a five throughout the day, not answering their subtle hunger cues and waiting too long to eat, only to scarf down huge amounts of food and feel uncomfortable afterwards.
It's not about beating yourself up—it is NORMAL to land on a one or five occasionally. But, if this happens more often than not, it's important that you pay more attention.
Your hunger will change everyday depending on how much activity you've done, what types of food eat, sleep patterns, who you're eating with, stress, and hormones so it's important to be flexible and not expect perfection. If you can eventually get to a place where, most of the time, you're eating something when you reach two and stopping once you've reached four, you've got it made.
Start here: Just simply tune in.
Take note of where you land on your hunger scale throughout the day. Don't beat yourself up about it. It is what it is. Just be aware of it and take small steps towards reaching a more comfortable range.
Instead of always letting yourself get to a one, aim for a two. Once you've mastered that, you'll notice that it's much easier to stop at a four instead of letting yourself get to a five.
If you're a 'grazer,' challenge yourself to creep beyond just "comfortable" after a meal or snack. Aim for a three and a half after your meals instead of a three. Eventually, you'll make your way up to a four. It's not going to happen overnight, but you do need to experiment with portions to start feeling what comfortable fullness feels like and trusting that it's healthy and ok to feel it. What you'll notice is that you don't feel as hungry as often.
Although this is only one of tools that helps my clients reach a healthy wait and develop a healthy relationship with food, it's a big one. Teach your kids about the hunger scale too—it's a great way to teach them to be intuitive eaters for life.